Every day across Britain, what we now describe as key workers set out to maintain life. They do this not only in care homes and hospitals, as EMTs, doctors, nurses, cleaners, or porters. They do it in supermarkets, stacking shelves, and in food production; they do it by cleaning our streets and collecting our bins; they do it by delivering mail and keeping essential public transport operational.
In sustaining the lives of others, they put their own lives at risk. Thomas Harvey, a 57-year-old healthcare assistant in Ilford and father of seven died from Covid-19 at the end of March. His family say he was forced to work with “just gloves and a flimsy apron.” One nurse, Mary Agyapong, contracted the virus while pregnant. She is survived by her infant child. Another medical worker, Karen Hutton, passed away just two weeks after the birth of her grandchild. Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a urologist in Romford, wrote a Facebook post begging the government for personal protective equipment “to protect ourselves and our families.” He died days later.
In London alone, five bus drivers had succumbed to Covid-19 by early April according to Unite the union. Akie Fenty, Bola Omoyeni, and Stefan Haluszczak passed away keeping postal services running. An outsourced cleaner in the Ministry of Justice, Emanuel Gomes, spent days working with coronavirus symptoms, fearing that he would not be entitled to sick pay, before dying on April 24.
Each day, workers like these lay the foundations of a decent society – based on common endeavour for the common good – only to watch them torn down before their shifts have ended. They are torn down by the fecklessness of a Tory government which refused to take the pandemic seriously, delayed lockdown, allowed non-essential work to continue, then failed to provide adequate PPE, tracing or testing; a government which had the time to learn the lessons from Italy and Spain, but instead allowed Britain to surpass them to the worst death rate in Europe. A government which now flirts with further disaster by lifting the lockdown before it ensures safety.
They are torn down by the pompous, but also by the profiteers. In early March, Wetherspoons announced a 15 percent increase in its profits – and promptly told its workers to go find jobs in Tesco for the duration of the pandemic. Food manufacturing staff concerned about falling ill were told that “if we need to get rid of 200 people’s jobs next month, I’m going to look at who turned up to work.” British Airways responded to the crisis by making 12,000 workers redundant on the day one of their colleagues died. He had been working on flights that brought loved ones home to see their dying relatives.
The conscientiousness of labour and the irresponsibility of capital. It is the great contrast of our times. But it should not come as a surprise, it has been demonstrated in our communities for decades. While working people provided our public services, capital privatised them; while working people fought to keep our youth clubs open, capital applied the pressure which shut them down; while working people staffed our local foodbanks, capital created the conditions which made them necessary. Day by day, in actions small and large, labour provides the collective basis that makes society possible. It stitches together the social fabric only for capital to tear it apart; it builds only for capital to vandalise.
And yet the dominant creed for more than a generation has been to venerate capital. We have been told that the real value in our society is created not by the nurses, the cleaners, and the bin collectors but by the stock brokers, the bankers, and the billionaires. “All economic policies must be designed as a spur to the wealth creators,” Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons in 1985 in a speech opposing the minimum wage. As if the vast corporate empires of our age had not been built on the backs of minimum wage work. As if their wealth was the product only of the genius of some capitalist.
This idea has deep roots in right-wing politics, that the brilliance of the few outweighs the contributions of the many – and that, on this basis, the elite in society have earned their place. Thatcher would often regale ballrooms of suited businessmen with the parables of the talents, of their talents, and contrast them with sermonising of her own about the wastefulness of workers.
Her intellectual guru, Keith Joseph, was even more blunt. Workers and their unions, he said, had “driven out” wealth creators by their demands for decent wages and conditions. The depth of his contempt for anything which could be said to sustain a society can be seen in the 1976 Stockton Lecture where he contrasted the “private wealth-producing sector” with the “public wealth-consuming sector.” The message was clear: the workers we champion today – who provide public services to save lives – were the parasites, he and his business friends were the producers.
This was a vicious lie, and it has done untold damage. But this crisis has reacquainted us with the truth. An army of mostly low-paid workers carry out the tasks which keep our society running. Capital reaps the rewards of their endeavours. Increasingly, it refuses to even allow them share in its riches, choosing executive bonuses and shareholder dividends instead of wage increases, and offshore bank accounts instead of paying taxes.
As Labour’s 1945 manifesto put it, the business elites act like “totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State,” “they have and they feel no responsibility to the nation.”
So why, then, do we allow them to control our economy? Why are the major decisions over what is produced and for whom, over the nature of future investments, over who is entitled to what, made in corporate boardrooms? Capitalists don’t create wealth, even in the most innovative sectors. As Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated, the technology which makes the smartphone ‘smart’ – GPS, touch screens, the internet – all derives from public investment. And the phones themselves are made in China, using lithium mined in Bolivia or cobalt from the Congo.
The job of the capitalist in the modern economy is not to create wealth. It is to bring the factors of production together at a given moment and for a given purpose. They enjoy this privilege only by virtue of ownership, and that ownership itself is derived from exploitation today and for many decades past. And they use this privilege only in pursuit of profit – any social ends which may accrue are at best a byproduct.
Often they are not even this, such as when Big Pharma tries to limit public access to vaccines or PPE producing companies see a pandemic as an opportunity to price gouge. Actions like these lead to demands for governments to step in and discipline capital, but why should it control the supply of essential medical and health supplies in the first place? If the economy was democratically owned and run by workers, wouldn’t they make decisions more likely to correspond with the common good?
Capital does not respect the work needed to build a society. The only work it values is that which produces profit. This is why our system is so corrosive to the very collectives – family, community, society – which have sustained us through this crisis. Capital values the care we give to our vulnerable neighbours, so long as we’re providing a service for a price. It says that the hungry can be fed, and the homeless housed, but only if they can pay for it. And increasingly it says that healthcare can be provided to those in need, once private companies have made a buck along the way.
But a new consensus can emerge from this moment of crisis, as it has from crises past. We can say the days of capital tearing down the society labour builds are over. We can demand that conscientiousness displayed by workers is rewarded by a place at the heart of post-crisis Britain. Except this time, workers won’t only lay the foundations, they’ll build the entire structure – a society in which the decisions which shape our lives are made for and by working people. That is the socialist ideal.